Judges 10-12: Of bastards, bandits, and child sacrifice

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Abimelech is never, as far as I can tell, explicitly called a judge. He is included in the book of Judges, but his narrative could have been intended as a follow-up to Gideon’s story. Here, Judges 10 begins: “After Abimelech there arose to deliver Israel […]” (Judges 10:1). This phrasing is a little ambiguous. Does it mean that the sentence will finish by naming the judge who follows the judge Abimelech, or does it mean that Israel needed saving after Abimelech was through with it?

It’s important because our interpretation informs our idea of what it means to be a judge – is the important point that the individual be a leader appointed by God, or merely a leader?

Following Abimelech, we hear of two judges, called “minor” because they lack the stories of the main judges named in the book:

  1. Tola, son of Puah son of Dodo. Though of Issachar, he lived in Ephraim’s territory. He was judge for 23 years.
  2. Jair of Gilead was judge for 22 years. He had thirty sons who rode thirty asses (*gigglesnort*) and had thirty cities, called Havvothjair.

This isn’t actually our first mention of our friend Jair – in Numbers 32:41, Jair – there listed as a son of Manasseh – attacked and took the villages of Ham, calling them Havvothjair.

Setting the stage

Once again, the people fall into evil, “serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 10:6), as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. As punishment, God sells them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites for 18 years, except they only oppressed the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. But the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. The narrative is a little confused/confusing.

Whatever God did, it was bad and it involved the Ammonites (and maybe the Philistines?). The people repent and beg God for help.

God, clearly claiming the moral high ground, gives an “I told you so” speech and tells them to go cry to the other gods since they seem to love them so much.

Rags to riches

Meanwhile, we learn about Jephthah. His parentage is a little confused – he is the “son of a harlot” (Judges 11:2), but his father appears to be Gilead himself.

As in Judges 1, it seems that the tribe is appearing in a personified form, here capable of having sons. Yet I’m having trouble finding any information on Gilead as a tribal entity. A quick google search is only telling me that it’s a region – not a tribe. Yet in Judges, it seems that it is used instead of Gad. This is clearly something that I will have to look into more.

Father issues aside, Jephthah, as a bastard, is cast out from his home when his ‘natural born’ brothers reach adulthood. Denied a share of his father’s inheritance, he turns to a life of crime – becoming some sort of bandit king in Tob.

Though the Ammonites make war against Israel (Judges 11:4), only Gilead seems particularly affected. Once again, we see what appears to be a local story clumsily edited to appear national.

So the elders of Gilead come to Jephthah, because for some reason he is the only person capable of defeating the Ammonites. Jephthah jumps at the change to gloat now that his brothers have come grovelling.

It’s a little unclear whose idea it is, but somehow everyone agrees that Jephthah will come to fight the Ammonites and, when he wins, he will become the leader of Gilead (Judges 11:8-10).

With that, he ties on his bandanna and moves out.

Confronting the Ammonites

Interestingly, Jephthah doesn’t just charge into battle as other judges have done. Rather, he first tries talking to the Ammonites, to understand why they are being such meanies. It reminds me of Joshua 22, where the altar-builders are asked why they’ve built the altar and given the chance to explain.

The Ammonites claim that the Israelites, on coming out of Egypt, took their land. Their campaign, then, is merely to reclaim the lands that had previously been theirs. They ask that Jephthah hand it over peaceably.

Jephthah denies their complaint, arguing that Israel hasn’t taken land from either the Moabites or the Ammonites (which would be in keeping with Deut. 2:19, 37). Rather, he explains, they asked for passage through Edom and Moab, were denied, so they went around. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, which means that they can’t have touched the Moabites. The Israelites then sent word to King Sihon of the Amorites in Heshbon asking for passage. Rather than simply refusing, the Amorites attacked, Israel won, and they took possession of Amorite lands. It is this land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, that they took – Amorite land, not Ammonite.

If Jephthah’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because we saw something similar in Numbers 20-22. But not all of those chapters are quoted. In fact, if we subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, it seems that the authors of Jephthah had access to only one of the sources that went into Numbers 20-22.

Abbie has a discussion of the sources used up on Better Than Esdras (she even has a chart!).

Jephthah continues: The Israelites own the land that they are on because they were taken in battle and because God says so (Judges 11:23). “Will you not posses what Chemosh your god gives you to posses?” (Judges 11:24), he asks. Perhaps the question means “what would you do in our place? Wouldn’t you hold on to land given to you by your god?” Though I have also seen Jephthah’s argument interpreted to mean that they should go inhabit the land that their god is strong enough to give them rather than bothering the Israelites (in other words, make it a battle between gods rather than between people).

Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say because, according to my study Bible, “Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites, whose chief god was called Milcom (or Molech)” (p.310).

Besides, continues Jephthah, do the Ammonites think themselves better than Balak son of Zippor (who, here, is either the king of Moab or the son of a king, though I don’t believe that any mention was made of this in Balak’s story in Numbers 22-24). Balak didn’t go to war against Israel, so why do the Ammorites think that they have the right to?

Jephthah’s final argument is that Israel has now been living in the area for three hundred years, so why have the Ammorites waited so long to lay claim to it? So much time has passed that they can now be considered aggressors, not defenders. I found this argument a little shocking given the relationship between modern Israel and Palestine, and I wonder how this passage is received by those involved in that conflict.

The Ammorites are having nothing of Jephthah’s arguments. So at this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), prompting him to go on the attack.

Predictably, he fights the Ammonites and wins “with a very great slaughter” (Judges 11:33).

Jephthah’s daughter

When he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah vows that if he is successful in his campaign, he will offer up as a sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house to green him when he returns (Judges 11:30-31).

Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

When he returns, the first person he sees is his daughter – an only child – who emerges dancing with a timbrel to greet him. Jephthah, in his grief, rends his clothes. His daughter reassures him, insisting that he must fulfil his vow. Only, she asks for two months in which to wander the mountains with her companions and bewail her virginity.

At the end of the two months, she returns and Jephthah fulfils his vow. It is in her honour that, says the text, “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:40).

In reading about this chapter, I’ve come across the argument that this story was intended to serve as a warning against making rash vows. However, he makes his vow after he is entered by the Spirit of the Lord.

As Collins puts it:

While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wrong either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded with victory) or in fulfilling it. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

It seems to me that the story serves simply to explain the origins of a particular holiday – the four days a year that women in Israel honour Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity (bemoaned because, as a virgin, she has had no children and therefore her death marks the end of Jephthah’s line).

The story also seems to take for granted that human sacrifice is a thing that is done, despite later condemnations of the practice. Abraham and Isaac’s story suggests the same, though in that story the human sacrifice is made unnecessary by replacing the victim with an animal.

That is, of course, if sacrifice is really what is meant here. There are some who argue that the “sacrifice” was that Jephthah’s daughter would be consecrated as a nun, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for virginal/celibate female monastic orders in ancient Palestine. Tim Bulkeley provides an explanation of this argument. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch motivated by a desire to bring this story in line with later theology.

Ephraim at it again

As in Gideon’s story in Judges 8:1, Ephraim is angry that Jephthah fought the Ammonites without them. Unlike Gideon, who had simply attacked, Jephthah claims that he did actually ask for help, but that the Ephraimites had refused to come to Gilead’s aid while they were being harassed. It is because Ephraim hadn’t protected Gilead that Jephthah had had to take care of business himself.

That’s the first we’re hearing of this, of course. Perhaps in the first the Ephraimites are hearing of it too! I suspect that the editor of Jephthah’s story added this detail to justify his later actions.

Because, unlike Gideon who mollified Ephraim, Jephthah just goes ahead and attacks them.

During the attack, the Gileadites guard all the fords on the Jordan, preventing the Ephraimites from escaping. Anyone who attempted to cross the ford would be questioned, asked if they were Ephraimites. If they said no, they were then asked to prove it by saying “Shibboleth” (or “ear of grain”). Since the Ephraimites apparently speak a different dialect, they are unable to pronounce the ‘sh-‘ and instead say “Sibboleth,” betraying their identity. It’s quite a little bit of linguistic detail!

All told, the Gileadites kill 42,000 Ephraimites – or, as Victor Matthews argues, they kill “forty-two eleph of the enemies. Though most translations render this as forty-two “thousand,” an eleph is more likely a designation for a military unit” (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59). Either way, quite a high number.

A few more minor judges

Jephthah rules for six years before he dies. He is followed by three more minor judges:

  1. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who is said to have had thirty sons and thirty daughters, all of whom he married to people outside of his own clan. He was judge for seven years.
  2. Elon the Zebulunite was judge for ten years.
  3. Abdon, the son of Hillel the Pirathonite, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who, altogether, rode on seventy asses. He was judge for 8 years.

I don’t know what the significance is of the asses in the record of Abdon and Jair. Does anyone have any ideas?

Joshua 23-24: Promises are made and people die

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I mentioned in my post about Joshua 1 that, according to Collins, “key points in this [Deuteronomistic History] are marked by speeches. A speech by Joshua in Joshua 1 marks the beginning of the conquest, and another in Joshua 23 marks its conclusion” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95).

That’s pretty much the ground covered in Joshua 23.

Years have passed in peace and, now old, Joshua calls together all the elders. Strangely, he tells them that he has “allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off” (Josh. 23:4). Strange because for all the talk of peace for many years and the end of the conquest, it’s quite clear that there’s plenty of warring left to do if the Israelites are to accomplish their stated goals.

But at least he promises God’s support in the remaining conqueration.

Was Joshua’s task not to take the whole of the land promised to the Israelites? Why did he not finish? It seems like the author(s) was dealing with a conflict between the rhetoric of the story being set down and the reality they lived in.

I also think that the idea of ‘work left to do’ might serve another purpose. In the context of a land half-occupied by Assyrians and soon-to-be overtaken by Babylonians, I can well imagine that the people may have wanted to read: “The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you” (Josh. 23:5).

Assuming that the authors are writing with purpose, Collins writes:

The need for fidelity to “all that is written in the law of Moses” is also emphasized in Joshua 23, the farewell speech of Joshua. Joshua concedes that the Canaanites have not been wiped out and warns against intermarriage with them (23:12-13). The prohibition of intermarriage is found already in Deuteronomy 7 with reference to the seven peoples of the land. It did not necessarily apply to all peoples. Some distinctions between Gentiles were possible. Deuteronomy 23 distinguishes between the Ammonites and Moabites, who may not be admitted to the assemble of the Lord “even to the tenth generation,” and the Edomites and Egyptians, who may be admitted after the third. The thrust of Deuteronomy, however, is to maintain a distinct identity, and this could be threatened by intermarriage with any Gentiles. After the Babylonian exile, moreover, a significant part of the Jewish people lived outside the land of Israel, and the need for boundaries over against the Gentiles became more urgent. In this context, distinctions between Ammonites and Edomites lost its significance and all intermarriage was discouraged. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.106)

Joshua then passes on to a summary of the story so far, starting with Abraham’s entry into Canaan, through Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob going into Egypt, Moses and Aaron leading the people back out, and then fighting loads of people. There’s even a mention of Balaam (though his donkey is, sadly, absent).

The new covenant

As Brant Clements points out, Joshua speaks directly on God’s behalf, tripping only once in Josh. 24:7, where he reverts to the third person.

Joshua 2Mostly, the speech serves to reinforce that all the Israelite victories have been God’s, and that it was God’s hand who guided them through the last couple hundred years of their history. At the end of this, Joshua asks the people not to serve other gods, even if their fathers did. The people agree.

Joshua then reminds them that if they serve other gods, God will “consume you” (Josh. 24:20). The people promise a second time.

Finally, Joshua reminds them that by giving their word they serve as a witness against themselves if they ever backtrack. The people promise a third time.

The implication is that the people had the choice, at this point, between following God or not doing so, that it is this promise that binds them (and not the promises made earlier to Moses). This is reinforced when Joshua finishes my making “a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem” (Josh. 24:25).

I’ve been theorizing throughout this book that Joshua may have once been a prophet/founder figure competing with the Moses-based cult. I don’t think it gets any clearer than it does here, where Joshua appears to go through all the same motions as Moses with no real acknowledgement that it’s been done before (despite the mention of Moses in the historical summary).

He even, after giving the statutes and ordinances, write his own “book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:26).

To memorialise this new covenant, Joshua places a great stone under the oak in the sanctuary at Shechem (Josh. 24:26). The reference to anything being “in the sanctuary” feels rather anachronistic. Apologists online seem mostly to argue that the oak is in the same field as the ark, but it sounds an awful lot like there is an actual sanctuary at Shechem at this point, one where Joshua was known as the covenant-bringer, not Moses.

My study Bible does corroborate that Shechem had some covenant-related importance: “The Canaanite god worshiped at Shechem was called Baal-, or El-Berith, “god of the covenant” (Jg. 9.4,46). The city thus had covenant associations for the Canaanites as well as the Israelites” (p.292).

According to Victor Matthews, this story became important for the later Samaritans:

Instead, they [the Samaritans] declared Mount Gerizim near Shechem to be their place of worship (see Gen 12:6-7 and Josh 24 for events justifying their position). The Samaritans took advantage of Alexander’s political goodwill to construct an alternative temple on Mount Gerizim around 330 B.C. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.165).

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that the oak at Shechem is mentioned. In Genesis 35:4, it is where Jacob buries all his household idols at God’s command.

Many deaths

At 110, Joshua dies and is buried on his land at Timnathserah.

Joseph’s bones – which had been brought up out of Egypt – are finally buried at Shechem, on the land that Jacob bought in Gen. 33:18-19.

Eleazar dies and is buried at Gibeah.

Numbers 23-24: Balak’s rather unsuccessful attempts at cursing

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In these chapters, we continue with the comedic repetition structure that seems to mark Balaam’s narrative.

When we last saw Balaam, God had allowed him to respond to Balak, king of the Moabites. At the very end of Numbers 22, Balak takes Balaam to a place that my RSV calls Bamoth-Baal, but that the KJV has as “the high places of Baal” (Num. 22:41). I’m not finding any confirmation that this is significant, but I find it interesting that Balaam seems so intent on hearing from YHWH, yet Balak is leading him to a place that is named after (and presumably has once been consecrated to) Baal. It’s like, disappointed with Balaam’s previous response, Balak is hoping that a different God will get him a different answer.

Once there, Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and to provide seven bulls and seven rams. Once each altar had been broken in with a bull and ram each, Balaam wanders off to meet with God.

The First Oracle

God put the words right into Balaam’s mouth for him to take back to Balak. The prophecy begins with a retelling of what’s happened so far – of Balak asking Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam refusing because he would not – or could not -curse anyone independently of God’s power (and, therefore, of God’s will).

The prophecy describes the Israelites as “a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations!” (v.9). I get the whole “chosen people” thing, but this looks an awful lot like nationalism – something I’ve always been very uncomfortable with.

Balaam then prays that he should “die the death of the righteous” so that his “end be like this” (v.10). It seems that he is defining the Israelites as specially blessed, and envisioning that he, too, could be similarly blessed if he dies righteously.

Balak is understandably upset to get this response. There he was, thinking he’d finally won Balaam over and would be getting that fancy new curse he wanted, and yet here’s Balaam blessing the Israelites instead! Talk about a bait and switch!

The Second Oracle

Thinking that a different vantage point might yield different results, Balak takes Balaam to a new spot – the field of Zophim, at the top of Pisgah. There, he once again builds seven altars and sacrifices a bull and a ram at each. Once again, Balaam tells Balak to wait by the altars while he goes off in search of God.

This time, the prophecy addresses Balak directly, calling him to rise and listen. He tells Balak that God is not human, and therefore does not lie or repent. Of course, we’ve seen him change his mind and repent several times. In fact, despite this present claim, we’ve seen a whole lot of God flying into a violent rage and his prophet du jour having to talk him down. Once again, we see a disconnect between the claimed character of God and his demonstrated character. Were this any other book, I’d call unreliable narrator!

The prophecy then goes on to say that God has blessed the Israelites – being that he is so in-capricious, he’s not about to change his mind about that (you know, until they ask him for quail again).

The Israelites are, therefore, protected. God is so strong – as strong as a wild ox, if you like the RSV, or as strong as a unicorn, if you prefer the whimsy of the KJV – that no curse could work against them.

The strength of a unicorn

The strength of a unicorn

A note on the unicorns: Apparently, this is a Septuagint issue. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word re’em was monokeros – one-horned. According to Wikipedia, this interpretation made sense to the KJV translators since unicorns are legendary for the impossibility of their taming.

According to the JewishEncyclopedia, this translation was later revised to “wild ox” given the etymological and contextual similarity to the Assyrian rimu: “which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.”

The prophecy continues by saying that God has made Israel so powerful that:

As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down till it devours the prey,
and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num. 23:24)

The imagery is certainly gruesome, but it’s also quite poetic.

Balak, of course, isn’t happy with this prophecy either. If the first oracle can be interpreted as blessing the Israelites, this one certainly can! But, of course, the schmuck of our little slapstick has to have a third try. Once again, he tells Balaam to come to yet another spot – to the top of Peor – in the hopes that this new place “will please God that you may curse them for me from there” (Num. 23:27).

The Third Oracle

The song and dance of the seven altars and the seven sacrifices of bulls and rams has to be performed in the new spot. But this time, Balaam doesn’t bother to head off in search of omens, God makes a house-call.

As Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out, this change has literary significance:

In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.

This time, God addresses Balaam rather than using him as a mouthpiece. He calls to him, as he called to Balak in the second oracle. There’s a listing of name, ties, and status. In the midst of this, God hints at the prophetic process, describing Balaam’s experience of visions as a “falling down, but having his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:4). This seems to suggest a sort of ecstatic trance.

During this, Balaam is described as one “who sees the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:4). According to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, this may be significant:

Fragmentary Aramaic texts of the ninth century BCE from Deir Alla refer to a Balaam who, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the son of Beor. He is said to have a vision of a disaster that befalls his city, at which he weeps. This revelation is received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, which recalls the title Shaddai, “Almighty,” an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4. (p.61)

Then we get some lovely compliments about how nice the Israelite tents are, and there’s a bunch of flowery comparisons. In the middle of all of that, we are told that the Israelite king “shall be higher than Agag” (Num. 24:7). Agag is the name of the Amalekite king featured in 1 Samuel 15:33. This leads to three possibilities that I can see/find:

  1. There are two different kings by the same name.
  2. The text, written long after the events it purports to describe, contains an anachronism.
  3. “Agag” is not the name of a king but, rather, a standing title among Amalekite rulers.

Then we get a bunch of fluff about God being super strong (like a unicorn!), and how he can crush people’s bones and nom on nations, yadda yadda.

To close the prophecy, God says that all who bless Israel will also be blessed, and all who curse it shall likewise be cursed.

This, of course, needles at Balak’s nerves, so much so that “he struck his hands together” (Num.24:10). According to my Study Bible, clapping was “a gesture of anger and reproach” (p.196). Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a live performance.

Balak tells Balaam that he had promised to “honor” Balaam for his services, “but the Lord has held you back from honor” (Num. 24:11). That’s quite an interesting perspective. He then tells Balaam to leave.

The Fourth Oracle

Rather than leave, Balaam launches straight into his fourth oracle, introducing it by saying to Balak: “Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14).

Notice that the pattern is broken again here. For his fourth oracle, Balaam no longer requires altars and sacrifices. This one, as they say, is on the house.

It begins, again, with a listing of Balaam’s ties and titles, using language that’s nearly identical to the opening of the third oracle. Then it gets a little kooky.

The language is a little purple, but the essence of it is that, at some time in the future, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob [Israel]” (Num. 24:17) – it’s given a royal slant when the line is repeated but with sceptre in place of star. This star will crush, kill, destroy the following groups/places:

  • Moabites
  • The sons of Sheth
  • Edomites
  • Seir – which, given the text, seems to be an enemy of Edom, yet my Study Bible claims that these are just two names for the same group (p.197)
  • Amalekites
  • Kenites

There’s a weird verse asking how long Asshur would take Kain captive, and another saying that ships will come from Kittim to afflict Asshur and Eber. My Study Bible is entirely useless here, making excuses about how “the meaning of these verses is obscure, owing to the uncertainty of the names” (p.197).

Having finished with the curse, Balak packs up his toys and heads home.

According to Collins in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this final oracle has been imbued with some messianic significance:

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this oracle was taken as a messianic prediction. The leader of the last Jewish revolt against Rome, in 132-135 C.E., Simon Bar Kosiba, was hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the messiah foretold in this oracle. Because of this, he is known in Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba (literally, “son of the star”). (p.82)

Assuming, for the sake of funsies, that this is a retroactive prophecy – set in the past, yet “foretelling” current/recent events – it sounds a whole lot like political propaganda. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that a king wanted to solidify his claim to the throne, so he commissioned the writing of some prophetic historical fiction to “predict” himself, thereby legitimizing his rule. The author chose Balaam, a seer that people were clearly talking about – given the Deir Alla inscription – in the same way that people today will often write predictions and ascribe them to Nostradamus.

Numbers 22: Talking out of his ass

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This chapter reminds me a lot of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, except that the instructions have all disappeared.

The easy-peasy version of the story has a king getting antsy at the approaching Israelites, so he calls on a magician, Balaam, to curse them. Balaam refuses, and the king asks him again. This time, God tells Balaam to go. Balaam obeys, but God suddenly changes his mind and there’s a humorous episode involving an ass, and the  Balaam submits his final refusal to aid the king against the Israelites.

God’s sudden change of mind makes very little sense unless we realize that this chapter is actually a proto-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book written, unfortunately, before the use of page numbering. (Or, you know, two separate traditions have been melded, or its an attempt at – as my Study Bible so quaintly puts it – “oriental humor.”)

The Moabite king

While the Hebrews are camping in the plains of Moab, the Moabite king Balak, son of Zippor, starts to get nervous. He’s heart about their defeat of the Amorites and, justifiably, isn’t sure he wants them hanging around his territories.

To deal with the situation, he sends messengers to Balaam, son of Beor. The messengers ask Balaam to use his super awesome magical powers to curse the Hebrews, “since they are too mighty for [Balak]” (v.6). Balaam does seem to be a magician of some renown: “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Interestingly, though the effect would be the same, Balak has asked for his enemies to be cursed rather than himself to be blessed – something that may be a smart move if Balaam is getting his power from the God of the Hebrews.

Unwilling to act rashly, Balaam tells the messengers that he needs to sleep on it.

At some point – the context seems to indicate that this happens in a dream since, afterwards, we’re told that “Balaam rose in the morning” (v.13) – God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with the messengers and not to curse the Hebrews.

The conversation between Balaam and God seems to indicate that Balaam is familiar with the Hebrew God. In fact, he tells his guests that he needs to take the night to consult first, “and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me” (v.8) – suggesting (assuming that I’m not getting duped by a crappy translation) that Balaam is deliberately seeking the will of the Hebrew God. Yet the context makes it very clear that he is not an Israelite himself.

Duane Smith, of Abnormal Interests, also brings up a very interesting discussion regarding solicited versus unsolicited divination, which he refers to as omina impetrativa and omina oblativa. In the former case, a diviner will actively perform some kind of ritual with the intent of divination – such as reading the entrails of an animal or interpreting the flight of birds. In the latter case, the divination is passively received by the individual without having previously been sought.

For obvious reasons, divination through dreams – oneiromancy – is generally thought of as passive, unsolicited divination. Yet in this case, Balaam is very clearly going to bed with the explicit intention of chatting with God.

David Plotz points out that this isn’t the first time God appears in a dream to a non-Hebrew. Way back in Genesis 20, he came to Abimelech and warned him not to sleep with Sarah. In both cases, the non-Hebrews seem to obey God more readily than most of the Hebrews.

But now we get our choice: Should Balaam listen to God and refuse the king’s request? Or should he disobey God and go back with the messengers? YOU DECIDE!

Balaam refuses the king’s request

Balaam tells the messengers that God has forbidden him from going to King Balak, so they return with the message.

Balak decides to try again and he sends a second wave of messenger princes, more than before and of higher status. They arrive and ask Balaam, once again, if he could pretty please with a cherry on top come curse the Hebrews.

But Balaam refuses. No matter what the price, he won’t come so long as God doesn’t want him to. However, because he’s such a nice guy, he’ll go ahead and ask the Big Man Upstairs for permission again.

That night, God’s tune changes. Now he wants Balaam to go to Balak, only he must do exactly as God instructs.

Balaam returns with the messengers

Now there’s a gear shift. Balaam is heading back to Moab with the messengers, as God asked, but “God’s anger was kindled because he went” (v.22). Talk about mixed messages!

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Then God continues his hissy fit by refusing to actually voice his concerns to Balaam directly. Instead, he just sends an angel to stand in Balaam’s donkey’s path.

The donkey, seeing the angel (that’s invisible to Balaam), turns off the road and walks in the field instead. Balaam, confused, starts whacking his ass (*gigglesnort*). In typical mythic fashion, this happens three times. The third time, the donkey opens its mouth and complains: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (v.28).

Balaam, acting for his part as though it’s perfectly ordinary for his donkey to sit down for a chat, goes on about what a bad-ass the donkey’s been for refusing the follow the road properly.

Just then, God’s angel reveals himself and tells Balaam that he shouldn’t be hitting his ass. You see, explains the angel, if the ass had not turned aside, he would have killed Balaam.

This is an interesting commentary on the nature of sin. As we saw in Leviticus 4, sin does not mean here what it’s come to mean these days. As Balaam puts it: “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me” (v.34). His sin, therefore, is in not knowing that he was doing anything wrong.

The angel repeats (or says for the first time, if you’re playing the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game properly) the instruction to do exactly as God says when Balaam gets to his meeting with Balak.

Meeting Balak

Having heard of Balaam’s arrival, Balak goes out to meet him. He asks Balaam why he didn’t come (I’m assuming that he means the first time), and Balaam basically just says “I’m here now, aren’t I?”

But Balaam repeats that he can do nothing other than what is instructed of him by God. “The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (v.38).

The two men go to Kiriath Huzoth together, where Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep. It’s unclear whether these sacrifices were made to the Hebrew God (whom Balaam is clearly soliciting) or to another (which I would assume Balak would prefer).

I’ll stop here, even though there’s a verse left. Verse 41 more properly belongs to Numbers 23, so I’ll cover it next time.

Who was Balaam?

Which gets us to the interesting question of just who, exactly, is Balaam. We know from the text that he was living in Pethor when Balak sought him out. We don’t know where Pethor might have been, by the way, though Wikipedia thinks that it might be the same place as Pitru, mentioned in ancient Assyrian records. Regardless, it seems to have been in Babylonia, and Babylonia was, according to my Study Bible, famed for its divination (p.193). In fact, according to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, Balaam is shown as a “typical Mesopotamian seer-priest, the kind known as baru” (p.61).

Balaam may have actually been a real person. His existence is corroborated by an inscription discovered in 1967 at Tell Deir’Alla (or, simply, Deir Alla) dating from the 8th century B.C.E. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82).

The prophecies described in the Deir Alla text bear no resemblance to the ones we’re about to read in Numbers. Instead, they merely recount Balaam’s vision of a disaster that befalls his city. However, this revelation is said to have been received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, “which recalls the title Shaddai, ‘Almighty,’ an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4″ (Porter, The New Illustrated Companion, p.61).